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December 15, 2021

HM Land Registry accepts electronic signatures

Digital signatures are revolutionising the business of selling and buying property.

Why? By replacing ink signatures on paper deeds, the technology can save time, money and the environment, enhance convenience, increase mobility, improve security with identity authentification and verifiable audit trails, and reduce the risk of forgery and legal documents getting lost, stolen, or damaged.

If you're curious to learn more, you've come to the right place. Here are your questions answered.

Do HM Land Registry accept electronic signatures?

Certainly, and here's why.

"Transfers of ownership of property, leases, mortgages and other property dealings can now be signed electronically, making it simpler and faster for people to move home,"

says Her Majesty's Land Registry (HMLR), the UK Government department that registers ownership of land and property in England and Wales.

Can deeds be signed electronically in the UK?

Do digital signatures hold up in court? Absolutely, and here's why. The HMLR confirms:

"The Law Commission concluded that an electronic signature was capable in law of being used to execute a document, including a deed. The Law Commission also concluded that an electronic signature could be witnessed in essentially the same way as a wet ink signature, except that the witness would see the signatory adding their signature to a document on a screen."

How can Legalesign help?

HMLR has issued guidance on how to use electronic signatures, where you can find more of your questions answered, here: practice guide

Legalesign now complies with the specific signing and witnessing a process that HMLR requires.

The procedure includes one-time passwords (OTP) through emails and SMS pin codes. Our how-to guide explains the full procedure for platform users. Support is on-hand for one-to-one advice too.

HM Land Registry allows either the conveyancer or the signatory to add witness details and the Legalesign platform allows either option. To let signatories add their witness details, Legalesign users simply need to click the ‘decide later’ button beside where they would normally enter the witness details. The process is still protected because an email and mobile number is still required, with an OTP for both signatories and witnesses.

Why now?

During the Covid 19 pandemic in 2020, with many people working from home and organisations functioning remotely, HMLR was asked many times to treat electronic or digital signatures as equivalent to ‘wet-ink’ signatures - a hand-written pen to paper signature.

Later that year, on 27 July, the body announced: “We took a revolutionary step that allows deeds signed using an electronic signature to be registered.”

The Chief Land Registrar Simon Hayes explained:

"What we have done today is remove the last strict requirement to print and sign a paper document in a home buying or other property transaction. This should help right now while lots of us are working at home, but it is also a keystone of a truly digital, secure and more efficient conveyancing process."

What are the benefits of electronic signatures?

The end of lockdown was just the beginning for e-signatures, explains HMLR product manager Michael Abraham:

"During the pandemic, the convenience of signing a deed without needing to handle paper or visit an office was clear, but electronic signatures have a larger role to play in the future of land registration.

Electronic signatures can offer greater assurance and security than a wet signature on a paper deed, as well as offering cost efficiencies and environmental benefits. They are the keys to unlocking the future of digital conveyancing.

Electronic signatures can be machine read, meaning they can feed into new automated processes more easily. Their security features can also be validated digitally, again removing the need for manual checks or reviews, and offering greater assurance. In some cases, they also offer verification of a signer’s identity.

When combined with a digitally produced deed, and digitally validated identity check where necessary, they could really streamline the application and registration process."

What types of electronic signature do HMLR accept?

An electronic signature can take multiple forms and use a digital signing platform. Examples include: facsimile signatures (generated electronically); word processed signatures; and advanced electronic signature, as defined in the UK Electronic Identification, Authentication and Trust Services (eIDAS) Regulations.

"We know that electronic signatures in isolation cannot change the whole process,"

Said Michael Abraham on the HMLR website:

"While they remove the need to post documents, and allow documents to be signed in minutes, if applied to deeds then, like any other signatures, they still require a witness.""

Witnessed Electronic Signatures (WES)

In response to the challenges presented by the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, HMLR announced it would accept witnessed electronic signatures for the execution of deeds.

"A witnessed electronic signature is the replacement within a standard deed of a wet-ink signature with an electronic signature,"

explains the HMLR:

"A witness is still required to be present, who can also ‘sign’ electronically."

How does a witnessed electronic signature work?

"The process will involve a conveyancer uploading the deed to an online platform which sends a link to the signatories,"

says the HMLR.

"Once they have completed the necessary authentication checks, they would then ‘sign’ the document electronically in the physical presence of the witness who then also signs. The conveyancer is then notified that the signing process has been concluded and, once they have effected completion of the deed, can submit the completed deed to HM Land Registry with their application for registration."

Qualified Electronic Signatures (QES)

Then, in September 2021, HMLR piloted a more advanced type of electronic signature, the qualified electronic signature (QES) that does not need to be witnessed, which, it said,

"Could be the real game changer. Last year, we talked about a type of electronic signature called a ’qualified electronic signature’ and which could provide a solution to the need for witnessing,"

said the HMLR.

A Qualified Electronic Signature uses a technology called a ‘digital certificate’ to authenticate the signer’s identity. Digital certificates indicate that signers have completed extra steps to confirm their identities. A signer’s digital certificate is used to create the digital signature and then attached to the signed document.

"When you sign a document using a qualified electronic signature, your identity is verified by a ‘qualified trust service provider’, which could be seen as replacing the assurance that is usually provided by the witness,"

explains the HMLR.

"When verifying your identity and creating the signature, the qualified trust service provider must meet a strict set of standards outlined in legislation known as eIDAS."

A qualified electronic signature offers the highest level of trust through a face-to-face identity verification process performed by a qualified trust service provider. The QES process establishes the validity of the signature process, to the extent that a QES is considered the legal equivalent of a wet ink signature under UK law.

How does a qualified electronic signature work?

"Generally, the document would be uploaded by the conveyancer, the signatory would access the document but would need to meet the identification requirements of the Qualified Trust Service Provider before signing,"

explains the HMLR.

"The signed document is then made available to the conveyancer to access and submit to HM Land Registry."

Qualified Electronic Signatures are considered more secure as the ID checking and encryption need to be undertaken to a set standard and are controlled by a regulated body.

HM Land Registry are exploring whether Witnessed Electronic Signatures could be retired in favour of Qualified Electronic Signatures once the technology matures."

What are the benefits of signing with QES?

  • 100% Secure In the past, a signatory had to sign a document and return it by post, scan, or attach it to an email, which are not always totally secure.

  • Legally Binding In the UK and EU, a QES has the same legal weighting as a handwritten signature with a higher evidentiary value in court.

  • Speed and Efficiency Using QES to complete property deals can securely speed up the process, reducing the time taken from weeks to hours.

  • Cost Getting property contracts signed often involves them being shipped around the country or even abroad to gather signatures. This can take weeks or even months and incur large costs. Using QES instead of wet ink signatures saves money by reducing costs such as printing and posting or couriering.


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